Aerial View of a Melting Glacier in Greenland

The Endangered Realm: Denmark’s Pursuit of Stability and Protection in a Turbulent World

Located in Northern Europe and constituting the southernmost Scandinavian country, Denmark may often be overlooked in the great game of geopolitics. However, a careful glance at the Kingdom of Denmark—comprising Denmark proper, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland, provides a remarkable account of political versatility and resourcefulness in its recent history. In this piece, John Fee examines the rise of inter-state strategic competition in the Arctic and the impact it has had upon Denmark and its NATO commitments.

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Whoever holds Greenland will hold the Arctic. It’s the most important strategic location in the Arctic and perhaps the world.

Walter Berbrick, U.S. Naval War College, Director of the Arctic Studies Group

In the wake of climate change and its increasing impact on the Arctic’s geography, inter-state competition has intensified across the region and, consequently, around the world’s largest island—with Russia’s increased military presence in the Arctic dispelling any notions that the region will be spared from militarisation. This perilous development has led to Danish policymakers signing off on a 1.5bn DKK (approx. $250m) surveillance package last month to enhance situational awareness across the Arctic and the North Atlantic—a NATO obligation undoubtedly prescribed by Washington.

Meanwhile, Chinese economic encroachments on Greenland have tested Copenhagen’s resilience in the face of growing economic incentives—occurring amid the island’s push for independence. To understand the significance of this challenge for Denmark, one has to take a closer look at Greenland’s independence predicament. Each year, Denmark provides the Island of 56,000 people with an annual block grant of 3.9bn DKK (approx. $585m) that accounts for approximately 20% of the Island’s GDP (2018). For this reason, independence from Denmark remains implausible so long as Greenland’s public budget remains dependant on Copenhagen’s treasury. And herein lies one strategic predicament that is motivating a range of geopolitical manoeuvres on the island. Greenland knows that foreign investments are an extremely enticing avenue to realise its aspirations of independence—extensive rare earth elements and great power rivalries make for enticing bargaining chips after all. Therefore, China arguably sees independence as geopolitically advantageous to its Arctic ambitions. For context, Chinese investments on the Island are now believed to account for over 10% of Greenland’s GDP (2012-2017). However, Beijing’s newfound willingness to engage in infrastructure building across the Arctic region has not been without resistance. In 2018, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) was shortlisted along with five other companies to make bids for three airport construction projects in Greenland. However, the U.S. Pentagon was quick to react—viewing this development as a non-military manoeuvre that aimed to give China a greater military foothold in the region. And so, Denmark, who retains exclusive authority over the Island’s foreign and security policy, was pressured by the U.S. to intervene—which resulted in a financial compromise being made between Copenhagen and the self-ruling government—aggravating some parties in the process. Looking forward, Greenland’s self-ruling government will undoubtedly have to decide what is more important for the island in the long term—shedding its current dependence on Danish financial grants or leaning on emerging power frictions to procure favourable investment outcomes. For Copenhagen however, this incident illuminates the delicate balance between maintaining favour with the self-ruling government and fulfilling its NATO obligations.

American Interests

Historically, the U.S. has maintained a strong strategic interest in Greenland on account of its proximity to the American Continent. Following the Arctic’s increased geostrategic importance, the U.S. has strengthened its efforts to shape the island’s future. In 2019, diplomatic tensions emerged after the Trump administration expressed its interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark following a firm rejection from the Danish Prime Minister. Then, in April 2020, the Trump administration announced its Arctic strategy—revealing a $12.1 million funding package for Greenland in conjunction with the reopening of the U.S. consulate on the island—causing outrage among some Danish politicians who believed the acts to be undermining Denmark’s position. And as the island’s strategic importance grows, there is little doubt that the U.S. wants to be at the helm when Greenland declares independence—a predicament that of which Copenhagen is all too aware. Nonetheless, Copenhagen has to contend with the duties of alliance balancing as well as its quest to uphold the Danish Realm.

The Alliance Game

Here lies the crux of Danish security policy—the perpetual task of balancing between abandonment and entrapment that has defined Denmark’s global security strategy since the end of the Second World War. Snyder’s famed ‘security dilemma‘ elegantly outlines this predicament, whereby states in a military alliance like NATO are engaged in what he calls the ‘alliance game’—a strategic undertaking where the state must continuously weigh up the pros and cons of using various strategies to manage its alliance duties.

For instance, the previous decade has revealed the U.S. government’s dwindling appetite for alliance freeloading. This is why, following increased U.S. pressure, NATO committed itself in 2014 to meeting a 2% GDP defence spending target by 2024. At the time of writing, only 11 of the 30 NATO members meet the guideline, with Denmark spending 1.43%. This frugal contribution from Copenhagen is one strategy in the alliance game—a deliberately weakened commitment to reduce personal defence expenditure (freeloading), alongside the added effect of checking the alliance’s strength—which reduces the risk of entrapment; this is when a state is pulled into conflict in connection to an ally’s interests and not one’s own.

The greater one’s dependence on the alliance and the stronger one’s commitment to the ally, the higher the risk of entrapment.

Glenn H. Snyder

On the other hand, this strategy comes at great risk, since it casts doubt on an ally’s commitment and loyalty to the alliance, giving rise to the risk of abandonment—this is when the alliance guarantee can no longer be assured, or when an ally fails to live up to its promise. The Trump administration illustrated the potential risk of abandonment in 2018, with some reports suggesting that the U.S. President expressed his desire to leave the NATO alliance. Whilst such fears were not regarded as credible at the time, abandonment remains a looming risk. Denmark is all too aware of its dependence on U.S. protection to ensure the safety of the Danish Realm. This is why Copenhagen seeks to maintain U.S. engagement in Europe through NATO, despite calls for greater European strategic autonomy by fellow NATO members—not least since Denmark has an opt-out of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This predicament allows the U.S. to call upon Denmark to strengthen its defence efforts whilst Copenhagen simultaneously attempts to spend as little as possible. Meanwhile, Denmark continues to hail its substantial per capita contributions to major alliance operations—a time-proven strategy for increasing standing and prestige on a limited budget.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. and NATO shift their focus towards a more assertive Russia and China, the Danish attitude remains relatively nonchalant. In late 2019, Denmark’s Defense Minister, Trine Bramsen, proclaimed that Denmark will not meet NATO’s 2% GDP defence spending commitment by 2030 on account of Denmark’s current understanding of the threat environment—put simply, Denmark does not consider a Russian military confrontation as a realistic threat:

The Baltic Sea region will continue to be characterized by the tensions between Russia and NATO. Russia has increased its combat effectiveness and its ability to use the elements of speed and surprise to its advantage – including in the Baltic Sea region. However, it remains highly unlikely that Russia would deliberately risk a military conflict with the United States and NATO.

Danish Defence Intelligence Service, Intelligence Risk Assessment 2020

In the short term, Copenhagen’s unwillingness to meet NATO spending targets will likely be sustained by the Biden administration’s priority to rebuild trust with European allies. Not least, by the economic uncertainty following the COVID-19 crisis. Consequently, it would seem that versatility and resourcefulness remain ever-present constants in Denmark’s foreign policy qualities as it continues to reap U.S. protection services on the cheap.

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John Fee is a former signaler of the British Army with expertise in executive protection operations and risk analysis. John is currently pursuing a degree in Peace and Conflict studies at Malmö University, Sweden. His current academic focus concerns information influence operations.

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Cover Image: Aerial View of a Melting Glacier in Greenland, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech